Leadership & Management

Lessons from a North Korean Defector

Hyeonseo Lee escaped a despotic regime in a harrowing trek filled with near disaster. Here’s what she learned.

July 07, 2015

| by Shana Lynch


A North Korean soldier keeps watch southwards as he stands guard on the north side of a demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas in Paju. | Reuters/Lee Jae-Won

Defecting from North Korea is a fraught journey. If caught within its borders, you risk prison camp or a public hanging. If you successfully cross the border to China but are discovered, authorities will return you to North Korea to the same end. Even getting past China’s borders to a neutral country risks imprisonment and the various ways cruel people take advantage of the desperate.

But for Hyeonseo Lee, the reward of freedom and safety outweighed even the risk of death.

The human rights activist described her own flight from North Korea, and eventual South Korean asylum, as part of the Global Speakers Series at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Her memoir, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Tale, hit bookshelves July 2.

The Path

Growing up in a North Korean town near the border of China, Lee was inculcated to believe her leaders were gods and outsiders were evil. But as she watched her neighbors starve or disappear in the middle of the night, and learned more about her country from information filtering over the border with China, she began to see her government as an oppressive regime, detrimental to the North Korean population.

I had to do something — but what? My heart and body turned to stone.
Hyeonseo Lee

Relying on friends at the border, a 17-year-old Lee escaped to China, where she lived for several years before an acquaintance alerted her presence to the Chinese authorities. The police quizzed the young woman on her past, demanding she read from Chinese newspapers to “prove” her heritage. Self-taught in Chinese, she managed to fool them, then moved to Shanghai, where she could more successfully hide. She eventually found a job and purchased credible Chinese documents.

After a decade, she went to South Korea, requesting asylum. But that move proved to be its own challenge. Officials there examined her Chinese documents and didn’t believe she was actually North Korean. She was interrogated for three months before she convinced them and was granted asylum in South Korea.

The Family Flight

But Lee’s family in North Korea was also desperate to escape their home. She agreed to return to China from South Korea to meet her mother and brother as they snuck across the border.

The reunion was tempered by a harsh reality: For the family to reach real safety, they would have to take a long, slow bus trip across China to Laos, where they would seek refuge in the South Korean embassy. And while she had borrowed Chinese credentials for her relatives, neither spoke Chinese.

Early into the journey, a Chinese officer boarded their bus, demanding identification. Lee’s brother, the only man on the bus, instantly aroused suspicion. He feigned sleep, but Lee watched as the authority moved closer and closer. “I found myself in panic,” Lee recalled. “I had to do something — but what? My heart and body turned to stone.”

As the officer approached, she jumped up from her seat and began snapping pictures with her camera. “He was stunned,” she recalled. “Then he became furious. ‘Don’t you know it’s illegal to take pictures in this kind of situation,’ he yelled in Chinese. I gave him an innocent smile and said, ‘I’m sorry. I’ll delete them right away.’”

The police officer, flustered, turned and got off the bus.

That victory was short lived. Late that day, another police officer halted the bus. He ordered everyone off, calling them by name to interrogate them individually (and in Chinese). When the officer called her brother’s name, her brother froze in fear. Thinking quickly, she approached the officer and explained that her brother was mute and deaf, and that he was in her charge. Behind her she heard grunting, and realized her mother was acting a ruse. “‘She’s with me, too,’ I said. ‘She’s also deaf and dumb.’”

After an awkward silence, the police officer said, “There are too many deaf and dumb people on this bus.” He turned to the bus driver to confirm Lee’s statement. The driver, visibly annoyed by the long delay, assured him it was true. “Every passenger on that bus knew my mother and brother weren’t deaf and dumb,” Lee said, “but amazingly, they didn’t say anything.”

Reaching the Laos border did not end their challenges. Between China and Laos, Lee’s mother and brother were arrested and taken to a Laotian jail. To free them, a short-funded Lee would have to pay a steep fee. A kind Australian she met at a coffee shop heard her story and paid for their release. But as they traveled to Vientiane, the Laotian capital, again authorities arrested her family and sent them back to jail.

Borrowing funds from a friend, Lee was eventually able to secure their release six months later. They fled to South Korea, where they faced months of interrogation but were eventually granted asylum.

Lee’s Insights

Adversity: “Due to adversity, I became more mature and learned many virtues like wisdom, strength, and bravery.”

Empowerment: “I didn’t feel angry whenever I encountered a hardship I couldn’t change. Instead I lived my life overcoming obstacles. I realized I couldn’t change the situation in front of me, I could only determine my response. That has been very empowering.”

Perspective: “Truly appreciate the country you’re born into and the opportunities you have.”

Give back: “Clearly we have all been given much, and therefore much is expected of us. When we find someone in need, let’s lend them a helping hand and be a Good Samaritan.”

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